Originally published on Mind Over Model 11/18/2015
Hey beautiful! Meet our friend Amy Oestreicher. Amy’s a motivational speaker, PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning founder of the Fearless Ostomates, actress and playwright. Most of all, she’s badass. She’s brave. She just so happens to be gutless – and grateful. Here’s her story:
I’ve changed a lot since I was a teenager. I’ve changed, and my world has changed. On April 25th 2015, I was sitting in a high school classroom, mentally preparing for the epicPassover Seder I was about to lead that night.
The following night found me in a coma.
If you can believe it, the most shocking thing was what happened to my body. What started as a simple stomach ache turned out to be an unforeseen blood clot – my stomach burst to the top of the Operation Room. Both of my lungs collapsed. 122 units of blood were needed to stabilize me (editors note: Amy was even read her last rights). I couldn’t eat or drink for six of the past ten years. Doctors needed to create a makeshift digestive system for me – for that, it took 27 surgeries.
I’m healthy now, although my body has changed dramatically – I have scars where my bellybutton used to be, and I’ve finally learned what an ostomy bag is. I have physical wounds from failed surgeries that haven’t healed and most likely won’t, ever. I have emotional wounds that are, like all of us, still in the process of healing.
But those changes, those massive physical leaps, seem the most inconsequential. What made my head spin was waking up from a very sedated sleep, months after all of this happened to me, and learning I wasn’t going back to high school – or going to any of the colleges I had “just” been accepted to. Or, I’d never be seeing my old house again – we moved somewhere new the day I was discharged. Also, I had to learn my childhood Bichon developed a tumor while I was sleeping. I also found out that my grandparents had died.
And then – once I was “ready” to hear about my real situation, I was completely floored. I was told about changes that were out of my control, and the circumstances that I had to accept. Now that I had no stomach, doctors couldn’t predict when, or if I’d ever be able to eat again. Or drink, frankly – water and ice cubes were suddenly a forbidden pleasure that I’d taken for granted all of my life (don’t we all?!). Now, the sound of water running at a nearby sink was torture to me – another reminder of things I couldn’t do.
If we can tread back for a second, let’s focus on food. I’ve always loved food. I’ve also always been human, and a girl with her own insecurities. I’d read the latest magazines and learn about the new “superfoods” – how to incorporate the newest foodie trends into my diet. Now, all I wanted was a sip of water. I’d imagine not be attached to an IV pole – my only source of nourishment. I missed the social elements of food. I realized that food wasn’t just about solving our physical hunger – it was a catalyst to connecting with people.
Knowing that, to me, food was a lethal danger, I shut myself away from the world. I was afraid that any outside stimulation might make me feel alive – and to feel alive meant satisfying basic human needs. It was such an unnatural way to live, but I felt I had no choice.
I felt like a completely different person – I used to eat without thinking, and suddenly my parents were clearing out our refrigerator. More than that, since I started not being able to eat, I no longer felt like a person. I was in a body I couldn’t recognize. My smooth, rosy-pink skin was now tough, painful – slathered in stitches and gauze. I was frightened of my body – frankly, I didn’t want to look at it. When the nurse came to do my dressing change every morning, I shut my eyes as hard as I could – I couldn’t care to look at my stomach covered with bags, scars and wounds.
Without a body I could recognize, a life I could remember, and the normal things I clung to, I felt like an alien intruding on “normal life.” I was so desperate to remember who I was that I can recall googling “How do I find Amy Oestreicher” – nothing.
It took me years to learn this, and I don’t want to pretend that I’m perfect at it, but finding yourself is a daily process. This June, I just got married. I have a different body, but in it, I can dance again. I have different dietary needs, but I can still have pizza, which is, frankly, all that matters. More importantly, I have my life back, but I have a whole new perspective. I’m not who I was on April 25, 2005. Then again, I’m not who I was last year either. These years have been filled with tremendous difficulty, but I’ve learned things about myself and realized strength I never knew I had within me.
So many gifts have come out of this. While in hospital, I discovered painting, and have flourished as a mixed media artist with solo art shows, merchandise and creativity-based workshops. I even wrote a one-woman musical about my life, called Gutless & Grateful. I’ve been performing in theatres across the country for three years now, taking my message to campuses, conferences and support groups. After never having a boyfriend in my life, I tried online dating…and this June, became a bride. To top it all off, I finally started college…at 25 years old.
Now that I’m in my third year of school, I’m realizing that physical and mental health issues are things we all think about, even if we shy away from acknowledging it. We need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all have detours in our lives, and it’s empowering when we trust that, yes, we can travel throughthose detours and come out intact – even better! This “detour” I’ve experienced has turned into the richest time of my life, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for what I have now. Because of this, I call it my “beautiful detour.”
I’m so different from who I was before, that’s for sure – but now I’m stronger. Today, I’m so happy to say I know who I am. And the best part is that I really like her.
I’m off to Amherst tonight to tell my story at the Olio Performance the the League of Advancement for New England Storyteller’s Sharing The Fire Annual Conference this weekend!
How do you learn to love yourself when everything changes?